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Tuesday, July 22nd 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 4


It is a truism that communication is a two-way process. Consequently interaction often requires a proper reaction.

She: Does this dress make me look fat?
He: No, dear, you look the same as always.
She: So, in other words, you’re saying that I always look fat?
He: That’s not what I meant.
She: Then what did you mean?
He: Well, uh, I meant that you’re not fat, and that the dress doesn’t make you look any fatter.
She: What do you mean it doesn’t make me look fatter? So, you are saying that I am fat!

I guess that kind of argument, which reminds me just a little of Cary Grant movie scripts, may conceivably take place somewhere in the world from time to time. I suppose that, before I go on, I should balance it with one in which the male takes the dense part.

She: I’m sorry you’re having to work so hard right now. The kids and I miss you.
He: In other words, you’re saying that I’m neglecting you and the kids.
She: No, that’s not what I meant.
He: Then what did you mean?
She: I just meant that it would be nicer if you were able to be around a little bit more than your work allows right now.
He: So, you are saying that I’m more committed to my work than my family, and I’m not being a good husband and father.

There may, perhaps, be better ways of getting a misunderstanding to escalate, but surely the “in other words, what you’re saying” routine is time-honored and effective, and the response of “That’s not what I meant” may not work too well, once there’s hostility in the air.

Nevertheless, for Protestants (in the general sense) the formulations of doctrines in the history of Christian thought could be seen as residing in that category. “That’s not what we mean to say.” I shall attempt to illustrate my point by giving a quite shallow description of a few events in church history, merely hoping to clarify what I mean.

The New Testament, written with apostolic authority (John 14:26), directs us think of Jesus as both God and a human being. During the time period of the “apostolic fathers,” which is the generation of church leaders immediately after the apostles, some people accepted only half of that conjunction. Perhaps they thought of the two descriptions as contradictory to each other. Some said that Jesus was only human, an idea that became known as the Ebionite heresy. Others eliminated the humanity of Jesus entirely. They said that he was only God and just appeared to be human: the heresy of Docetism. The fathers said, “No, that’s not what we mean.” They didn’t provide sophisticated philosophical explanations for what they believed, but they clearly recognized truncated and amputated versions of what they did believe.

Gnosticism with its dualistic metaphysics came along. Irenaeus responded by saying, “That’s not what we mean,” and his response was two-fold: to show that 1) the gnostics created arbitrary philosophical schemes out of nothing but their imaginations, and 2) that true Christian doctrine must be based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Arius became the center of attention in the early fourth century and declared that he had found a way of understanding the deity of Christ without getting without compromising monotheism. He said that here is only one God (the Father), but in the hierarchy of spiritual beings Christ is so close in standing to the Father that one can refer to him as “God” as a courtesy title. Christ ranks higher than any other created entity; he may even be timeless, but—and here is the correct version of the slogan—“there was when he was not.” He was just like the Father, but not the same as the Father. Arius had numerous followers, but many opponents as well. They debated the matter with the followers of Arius at Nicaea in AD 325. In the dialog below let “Nicaea” stand for the eventual orthodox conclusion and “Arius,” of course, for Arianism. I trust that you recognize that the version I’m giving here is my own caricature and does not represent any actual discussion.

Nicaea: “We believe that Christ is God.”
Arius: “I, too, believe that we should call him ‘God’ because his nature is so much like that of God.”
Nicaea: “That’s not what we mean.”
Arius: “Then what do you mean? “
Nicaea: “Hm. Give us a minute to figure this out. Yeah. Okay. This is what we’re trying to say: Christ is not just like God, he is of the very nature of God.”
Arius: “So, in other words, what you’re saying is that there are three gods.”
Nicaea: “That’s not what we mean.”
Arius: “Then what do you mean?”
Nicaea: “Hold on, we need another couple of minutes to think about what we really mean. It’s a lot easier to recognize what strikes us as obviously wrong in the light of the Bible, than to come up with a model that is faithful to the Bible and isn’t totally irrational. Okay, let’s say that God is one nature (substance, essence), and he exists eternally in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Arius: So, are you saying that everybody has to accept that model?
Me (if I may speak from the council’s distant future): Theoretically, no. It is a model constructed by human theologians in order to do justice to the New Testament affirmation that there is only one God and, simultaneously that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are God. The model of the Trinity serves to clarify the content of the Bible on this point. Hypothetically, if someone came up with a better model to understand the biblical data, we could embrace it, but that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it’s possible.

Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly revealed in the Bible in the identical terms in which we state it in the creeds, but it provides the only model we have that’s faithful to Scripture, and so we accept it as a part of the historic Christian faith.

The same reactive approach can be seen in the story that led up to the Definition of Chalcedon. For more details than I’m providing here, please consult a good book on early Christianity or Christian doctrine. I recommend J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines as well as my Handmaid to Theology. As Arianism was beginning to wane, the question of how we are to understand the relationship between the Deity of Christ and his humanity came to the forefront. The extremes in denial (Ebionitism, Docetism) had been ruled out. Now the concern was what must be affirmed, and again there were some extremes that went beyond the biblical or reasonable boundaries. Some people taught that Christ was one person who had one nature that combined both his humanity and his deity (monophysitism, Eusebianism). Reaction: “That’s not what we mean. Christ was both fully God and fully human” Others made such a sharp distinction between Christ as human and Christ as God (Nestorianism) that it appeared that he was actually two persons, each with a different nature. Reaction: “Surely that’s not what we mean. Christ was only one person.”

Incredibly, this dispute actually produced physical violence between monasteries holding different views, viz. not by armies but by monks against monks. The situation was similar to, though fortunately more temporary than, the long drawn-out wars fought between different schools of Buddhism and their monastics. As far as I know the Christian disputants did not ordain monks specifically to serve as their soldiers, as Buddhists did in Tibet and Japan. Still, it was not a moment of glory in Christendom.

Finally, the council of Chalcedon (AD 451) set the course toward a settlement by expressing a model consistent with what the Bible says about Christ and what we mean when we say that he is both human and divine. He is one person with two natures; one may neither split the two natures up so that the result is two persons, nor should one blend them to the point of there being only one hybrid nature. Again, was the definition of Chalcedon revealed? Not directly, but it sets the parameters for a model that does justice to the biblical content.

However, one should not generalize from there to the conclusion that whatever has been decided at a council must ipso facto be faithful to the biblical information and true. Confessional commitment aside, Cardinal Newman’s theory of the organic growth of doctrine as well as the inconsistent compromise statements of Vatican II should raise a red flag and get us to realize that not everything that has been declared to be true in the history of Christianity must be true or even can be true.

Not that Roman Catholic theology would hold such an absurd position. There are many doctrines that the magisterium and the councils have exposed and rejected as error. But the commitment to apostolic succession and the transmission of infallibility has tied the Church’s hands. It is not easy to reject beliefs of the past, even if they are unbiblical, if one lives under the dogma that ancient traditions may carry the same authority as the Bible. This difficulty is exacerbated when the extra-biblical material is adjudicated by one man and his advisors.

While we're on that subject, let us take another quick sideward glance into Vatican II. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the gathered bishops and cardinals expressed themselves concerning authority in the Church. In an earlier post in this series I alluded to the controversy over whether a council has greater authority than a pope; unsurprisingly most popes have taken a negative position on that issue. (Perhaps John XXIII, the pope who convened Vatican II, would not have.) The document, in addressingthis issue, voiced an opinion that at first seems to be quite in keeping with the traditional understanding of the hierarchy. However, it caused alarm bells to ring in the Holy Office.

First, some statements from within the document. This is the last passage in section 20:

And just as the office granted individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and is to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles' office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ. (Abbott, 40)

Apostolic succession and the transmission of truth includes the bishops of the Church. It is not just limited to the pope, though the pope rules over them, and the document duly acknowledges that fact in the middle of section 22:

The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock; it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter, was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head. (Abbot, 43)

The college of apostles, as embodied nowadays by the bishops, has authority, but never without the pope. In fact, the council ranked the authority of councils higher than anything else, except that any true council is also directed by the pope.

The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them. (Abbot, 44)

So, as I said above, it would appear that there are no problems here with regard to the authority of the pope. The document clearly states that the college of bishops or cardinals, or even an ecumenical council, have no power apart from the pope. But the catch can perhaps best be understood by means of a question, which simplifies things a little: Does the pope have authority as head within the college or over the college. The document goes to great lengths to recognize the supremacy of the pope within the college, but the statements in Lumen Gentium were not quite strong enough for Pope Paul VI in stressing the juridical authority of the papacy. On the eve of the vote on the document (Nov. 16, 1964), the secretary general of the council issued a clarification that undoubtedly came from the Holy Office itself. The fact that this intervention occurred demonstrates that the issue was real. This supplement, called "a preliminary note of explanation," was considered to be the official papal interpretation of that section of Lumen Gentium—before it had even been ratified.

The parallel between Peter and the rest of the Apostles on the one hand, and between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops on the other hand, does not imply the transmission of the Apostles' extraordinary power to their successors; nor does it imply, as is obvious, equality between the head of the College and its members, but only a proportionality between the first relationship (Peter-Apostles) and the second (Pope-bishops). (Abbot, 99)

My point should be fairly clear. Even Vatican II, with all its zeal for renewal and reform, found itself lassoed in by the pope. I’m not entitled to take sides on the issue on who was right, but the documents speak loudly as to what happened.

To be continued. 

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Sunday, July 20th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 3

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Hanging in

These entries are clearly quite long. However, since my motivation to address this topic at all has been the intent to provide information in the hope that I might further the cause of knowledge and understanding, I’m not going to impede my propensity toward “stacking” this time around. If I don’t give you background ideas and events, I’m not doing anything different than repeating the standard polemics. I hope that you will have the patience to read and think through this Mt. Everest of words.

The growth of Christian doctrine over the centuries is not easy to explain if one does not take into account the fact that the people involved were not essentially different from you and me. They were just a intelligent and just as fallible; they were just as committed to the Lord and just as prone to sin. Once one begins with a picture that’s overbalanced in either direction, a virtually impenetrable curtain enshrouds the history of Christian thought.

On the one hand, if one treats the important leaders of various confession and the councils as infallible authorities, the liability is that either certain biblically-based beliefs may be forbidden, or other beliefs that do not have a grounding in the Bible may be declared as mandatory truths. On the other hand, to deem the history of Christian thought as irrelevant is unrealistic. Clearly our beliefs and practices have taken their current shape in the passage of historical events, including pronouncements of individuals and councils or a reaction against them. No one can escape their cultural heritage.

It may be helpful if I provided a couple of definitions. I have made reference to the distinction between Catholics and Protestants, and a couple of times I’ve added the term “free churches,” which I will explain below. Obviously, there are further important Christian groups, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Nestorians, Thomas Christians, and so forth, but the discussion to which I’m hoping to contribute is not directly catalyzed by them, and it would be totally unrealistic for me to include everyone who thinks of themselves as different in my considerations. “Catholicism” is very clearly the teaching of the church that follows the leadership of the bishop of Rome, the pope. The word “Protestantism” does not have a directly theological etymology. It does not derive from the idea that Luther “protested” against the Catholic Church, though it obviously has a strong connection with it. It think it's worthwhile to look at the events that gave rise to the term Protestant. So, here's my first instance of stacking for today.

The Origin of the term Protestantism. If you know even just a few items in Church History, the Reformation and the Diet of Worms are probably familiar terms for you. Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517. Several debates ensued. Please see my blog entry of April 21 of this year, where I focused in on this time period and especially on Cardinal Cajetan. An important question with regard to Luther was whether the final theological disposition of his ideas should come from a council or the pope. A council seeking consensus in the Church might have been a good idea to give Luther’s theology a hearing and perhaps even leave the Church intact. But the pope was opposed to the notion that a council might have greater authority than he, and Luther certainly was aware of what had happened to Jan Hus at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The pope himself settled the matter by declaring that Luther was a heretic with the Bull Exsurge Domine in 1520.

Still, it is one thing to state that someone is a heretic, it is another to do something concrete about it. The practice had become that, once someone had received the label from the Church, he or she would be turned over to the civil authorities for further prosecution and condemnation. In Luther’s case, he was brought to trial at the diet that was being held in the city of Worms. A diet (related to the Latin word dies, “day”) was the regular consultation of the emperor with his princes. If there was no emperor, the princes designated as “electors” could choose who among those who ranked the highest would become the new emperor. At the time Charles V  was the emperor, but he had only been held that office since 1519. At the time he was on good terms with the Vatican, though later on things did not always go smoothly. History books depict him as a devoted Catholic, and his decisions were presumably not merely pragmatic, but based on his personal beliefs. In 1521, when Luther made his famous declaration at the diet in the presence of the emperor,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. [Here I stand, I can do no other.] May God help me. Amen.

Charles issued his judgment, which became known as the Edict of Worms:

We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

Easier said than done; some men in the service of Fredrick, Elector of Saxony, spirited Luther away to be in hiding at the Wartburg until the edict of Worms would run out and he would be safe again.

Woops! There’s a problem with that last sentence. Edicts don’t usually come with a time limit. The emperor himself would have to rescind it, and he never did. However, Charles V was a rather busy man, serving not only as the head of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, but also as the King of Spain and prince of various other, smaller holdings. It was on his watch that Magellan attempted to sail around the world and that the Spanish conquistadors took over the Aztec and Inca empires. In addition to various uprisings in his territories, he had to contend with the Ottoman Turks, who, under Suleiman the Magnificent, expanded their empire right up to the gates of Vienna. Consequently, he was not able to attend all of the diets and to keep tight reins on their decisions in theological matters.

When a diet was held in 1526 in the town of Speyer, Charles’ brother, the Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria was in charge. By that time, a number of German princes had embraced Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity, and it had become clear that any ecclesiastical reconciliation was not going to be feasible without a great amount of effort. Furthermore, the relationship between Charles and the Vatican had soured, and now Charles advocated that a council should deal with the growing schism in the Church, much to the pope's chagrin. Thus, Archduke Ferdinand declared that a soon-to-be-convened council would settle theological matters, and that in the meantime, the princes should uphold the Edict of Worms in keeping with their obedience to the emperor and their consciences. A number of the German princes interpreted this declaration as a concession that allowed them to set aside the Edict and to let Lutheranism become the official confession in the lands that they governed. In other words, they considered the Edict of Worms to be annulled in their territories. That interpretation had not been Ferdinand’s intention, and when Charles heard of this development, he was deeply annoyed.

Still, Charles was also unable to attend the next diet, held once more in Speyer in 1529, because he was occupied with Turkish aggression.[1]  Once again, Ferdinand spoke on his behalf, this time emphasizing that the Edict of Worms was still in force in all of Charles’ territories and would remain so until the council, which would be convened any time now, declared otherwise. At that point, the German Reformed and Lutheran princes filed an official written protest against what they considered to be an arbitrary decision. It is this “protest” that led to those who joined in it to being called “Protestants.” Although their appeal fell on deaf ears, the protesting princes were politically strong enough that from that point on the policy that the confession of a prince of a certain territory would be the religion of his subjects set itself in place. (Not that, thereby, all questioned were settled. The thirty-years war in the early seventeenth century would still ensue.

These issues only affected those Christian groups that lived under the protection of a prince. Groups such as the Anabaptists and other sects were neither included in the Diet of Worms nor in its possible mitigation. They had been considered heretical and subject to execution all along. These groups are what I referred to as “free churches,” in the sense that they were neither endorsed nor supported by a government. Nowadays, we tend to lump most of these branches of the Christian Church together under the heading of “Protestants,” and, despite the lack of historical precision, I don’t see much harm in doing so in a conceptual context because they share the commitment to biblical authority as superseding any human authority. As a generalization, you’re not necessarily a Protestant if you’re a theologically orthodox Christian who is neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, but you can’t be a Protestant unless you’re the above. Mormons, Christian Scientists, and United Pentecostals default due to problems of orthodoxy. Pop!

Protestant Orthodoxy? Part 1. And that observation takes us back to the question of how Protestantism even can have an “orthodoxy” apart from a magisterium. The answer still lies in the controversial phrase at the heart of the present discussion, namely, they are orthodox insofar as they maintain the historic Christian faith.

Please, look over my posting entitled “How to Do Theology.” I need to restate some of the things I said early on in that series, though for the most part in abridged form (I hope—we’ll see if I can bring that off).

I stated early on in this entry that “no one can escape their cultural heritage,” and this judgment would include theologians even if I had not intended to speak of them. If we adopt a little bit of an analytic point of view, despite what we may claim, no one today teaches directly what the Bible teaches. This statement verges on the inane, when we consider that we don’t use Koiné Greek or the concepts that the apostles used in thinking or speaking. There are two thousand years of church history in between that have left their mark on our thinking. Whether it be theories of the atonement, the Godhead, or how we understand communion, we deliberate and propagate our ideas in the terms that reside in our cultures. Our thought patterns are heavily influenced by our environments, upbringing, education, gender, nationality, socio-economic setting, and so forth, not to mention experience of a purely personal nature. We cannot leapfrog over them; that can’t be helped. The question is, in a serious application of Humpty Dumpty's verbal imperialism, "which is to be master --- that's all." We seek to express the content of the Bible in such a way that it is clear, and doing so entails using the means that our culture puts at our disposal. However, we also seek, to whatever extent it is possible, not to allow cultural influences  to distort the biblical message.

As I stated last time, the result of a theological method that relies on biblical interpretation without mandatory doctrinal formulations is not going to be able to get around the fact that there will be different groups with differing variations in theology. Interestingly, it was precisely the quest for a doctrinal community that motivated Newman to convert to Catholicism. He did not appreciate Protestant individualism. I do, perhaps more than many people.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. Here is another point of difference between Protestants and Catholics. As I brought up before, apostolic succession obviously entails the reliability of the transmission or truth. Consequently, the Catholic Church is seen as the community of truth that facilitates salvation. In fact, there used to be a saying that the Church represented the ark of salvation, and it was necessary to be on board of that vessel in order to reach heaven. In other words, a corporate bond with the Church, by which is meant the earthly institution governed by the Roman pontiff was believed to be necessary for someone to be saved. It was frequently expressed by the Latin phrase, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “no salvation outside of the church.”

This doctrine is still firmly in place.

Whoa! Doesn’t Vatican II declare that everyone ranging from Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, right down to sincere atheists can be saved?

Yes, it does so, but we should look more closely at the basis of this declaration to understand it correctly. In fact, at the risk of extending this spontaneous series into infinity, I can’t help myself and will give you a few highlights of the history of the doctrine. Thus we enter the second stack of this entry.

The doctrine of the exclusivity of the Catholic Church was strongly expressed by Pope Boniface VIII in the Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302. Its main purpose was to go one step further and to argue that the head of the Church occupies a higher position than any temporal government, but we need not deal with that claim at the moment. The words of Boniface are here as an illustration of his view on the exclusive nature of the Catholic Church. You may have picked up before that I really I dislike conflated quotations, but they are an unavoidable drawback here, and I’m providing links so that you can read the surrounding content.

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins. … There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed. … We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

If this declaration leaves any doubt in anyone’s mind, Eugene IV, who was pope during the time of the Great Schism, stated in the Bull Cantate Domino in 1441:

[The sacrosanct Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.

Several of the websites that reproduce this document stress that this papal pronouncement is ex cathedra, viz. given by the pope in his official role. There is some internal discussion on whether it is, therefore, to be accepted as de fide. (I thought the two went hand-in-hand.) For our purposes, namely, tracing the idea by way of some examples, it is sufficient to say that papal decrees never came without any authority. The tone changed under Pope Pius IX who in a more humble spirit declared in Singulari Quadam in 1854.

Not without sorrow have we learned that another error, no less destructive, has taken possession of some parts of the Catholic world, and has taken up its abode in the souls of many Catholics who think that one should have good hope of the eternal salvation of all those who have never lived in the true Church of Christ. ... Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume on the limits of the divine mercy which is infinite; far from Us, to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsel and "judgments of God" which are "a great deep" (Psalms 36:6) and cannot be penetrated by human thought. ... For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?

Thus, Pius IX foreshadowed the more inclusive attitude demonstrated by Vatican II. And so we turn to Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, as promulgated by Vatican II, specifically its sections 14,15, and 16 (Abbott, 32-35). Section 14 provides a statement of who will receive salvation by drawing some rather clear lines in the sand. I need to give some lengthy excerpts because only completeness can yield clarity on this issue.

This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

Section 14 goes on to state that even one who is externally a member of the Church but “does not live in charity” is also not saved. On the other hand, those who intended to become Catholic, viz. those preparing themselves by studying the catechism, are already saved, even if they should die prior to being officially baptized into the Church. We see here that the ecumenicity of Vatican II is far from a universalism. Membership in the Church is necessary, but not sufficient.

Then again, how necessary is it? What about those aforementioned groups of people who are clearly not a part of the Roman Catholic Church? The Church is still the “ark,” and those other groups are vessels of inferior quality, but they manage to remain afloat because they are connected to the ark. Section 15 begins:

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who …[emphasis mine]. The groups mentioned are not entirely extra ecclesiam, “outside of the Church,” though they’re not entirely inside of it either. So, to continue a little further with that paragraph, the document acknowledges a relationship of the true Church to other Christian groups, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Protestants.

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. … In all of Christ's disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end.

The goal of bringing all Christians together under the Roman banner is still there, just as many other religious groups look for their own faith to become universal on the globe, so this is no vice. It does mute some of the shallower descriptions of the ecumenism of Vatican II. (In my theology, Jesus Christ will return and initiate the millennium, viz. reign on earth for a thousand years.)

It is not only other Christian groups who are included. Jews and Muslims may qualify as well. Maybe my repetition of this point is becoming annoying, but it’s the point I’m trying to demonstrate here: The qualification of these groups for salvation is expressed  in terms of a relationship to the Church, referred to her as “the people of God.”

Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (emphasis mine).

As we read section 16, the corporate bonds are still in evidence in the reference to the Jews, but they no longer appear once the document addresses those groups who are definitely not biblical. Now I need to bring up another point that is crucial to understand the nature of salvation here. Evangelicals and most other Protestants think that, if they're saved, once they have died they will wake up in the presence of Christ or in heaven. More sophisticated versions may insert an intermediate state prior to the resurrection with Christ, but even then the blessings start immediately. One should not think that the Council intends to declare such instant salvation for members of groups mentioned last--if for anyone at all. Vatican II did not abolish the idea of purgatory, a state in which the sanctification of an individual is completed so that he or she will become truly worthy to be in the presence of God. Thus, it would be wrong to think that when Lumen Gentium declares that even idolaters are eligible for divine grace, that their idolatry is, therefore, overlooked. It may take quite a while in purgatory before they are ready for heaven. The groups who are increasingly distant, but not excluded, are:

The Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God. Clearly, this reference is to religions that contain idolatry, but it is generally assumed that this expression is intended to refer particularly to Hindus and Buddhists.  

• Those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.

Now the council is including well-intentioned atheists. The statement continues with their fate in view:

Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.

As mentioned above, it is a fair inference that, even though these people are not going to be eternally lost, that they will finally be brought to the point of qualifying for salvation after a sufficient amount of time spent in purgatory. In any event, there is confusion in the world, and thus, it continues to be necessary to engage in evangelism:

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

To be continued.

[1] This remark is not related to the topic, but I can't forego pointing out that here we have a good example of Muslim armies fighting to acquire new territory. Furthermore, I see no intelligent way in which one could rationalize that they were recovering lands that previously belong to Islam or that they were coming to the aid of the residents of Vienna, who desperately desired to live under the Sultan's rule, but were forbidden to do so by their intolerant government.

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Friday, July 18th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 2


If you read my last entry as a critique of Roman Catholic theology, you have missed the point. I provided an overview of Newman’s theory on the development of doctrine in the context of the debate among Catholic theologians. Despite Newman’s confident assertions that the true church, that is to say, the legitimate descendent of the early primitive church, can only be the Roman one, he was not really arguing against Protestantism at that point, just pitching a little dirt. I am amused by the cavalier way in which he dismissed Protestantism,  but, as I was saying before, the Essay on the Development of Doctrine was not intended as a defense of Catholicism per se. He was constructing a theory in order to explain how the Catholic communion, despite undeniable changes in doctrine and practice, can still be the single and unique representation of the early church.

I left off with some questions that theologians in the Catholic tradition should be able to answer in an external debate. I assume that, from the vantage point of their tradition, they would answer them positively. I expect, for instance, that someone who believed in the doctrine of apostolic succession, a cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology, would also agree that apostolic succession entails the transmission of truth. Since I am not a Catholic, I am in no position to tell Catholics what they should believe to be true to Catholic doctrine. However, without overstepping the boundary of what is possible or polite, I can enunciate reasons why I think that certain Catholic doctrines, as I have learned them from Catholic people and their writings, are wrong, and why I do not think that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church can lay claim to representing the “historic Christian faith."

I’m going to proceed slowly and hopefully with sufficient nuance that it doesn’t appear as though I was making the matter easy on myself. Let me avail myself of the device that I used throughout No Doubt About It and begin with a vignette. I do not have a clear memory of the names of the people involved forty-some years ago, so “Frank” and “Rachel” are my attempts at avoiding awkward descriptive substitutes, such as “the Catholic girl” or “the Jesuit priest.”

Vignette 1. I think it was in my sophomore year that Fr. Frank was a regular visitor to the commuter cafeteria of the University of Maryland. He was a Jesuit, working on his Ph.D. in chemistry. (Let me quickly explain that one of the several distinctions between the Jesuits and various other orders is that each member is required to be ordained as a priest and have full credentials in an academic field. The second area of study might be theology or philosophy, but, as we can see in Fr. Frank’s example, it could also be in other disciplines, including the natural sciences.)

On days when his schedule allowed, Fr. Frank, S.J. would sit for an hour or so during lunch time at a table in the cafeteria, quite conspicuous with his clerical collar, attracting the attention of students like me as though he was a magnet. I was thinking of myself as “witnessing” to him, while his agenda clearly was to get the students who were chatting with him to think through what they claimed to believe. Typically, he would ask questions, listen to our answers, and then respond with follow-up questions that had probably not occurred to us. His regular “flock” of conversation partners ranged from Catholics to skeptics to evangelicals. I have no idea how many times he must have heard someone tell him what he must believe since he was a Catholic priest. Rightly or wrongly, he took it in stride and good humor.

One day, as five or six of us were gathered around the table, he stipulated a scenario—merely as a hypothesis—according to which a young couple would be in a position to have sexual relations before marriage without the liability that anyone else would be hurt or even inconvenienced by their action. Under those conditions, would it still be wrong? Rachel, a Catholic girl, immediately spoke up. She said that it was wrong because her Church had forbidden it. Personally, I thought that she had given a rather shallow answer, but to my surprise, Fr. Frank lauded her. He said that hers was a very good answer, and then he started fielding arguments to the contrary brought up by a skeptical philosophy major. I did not have anything particular to contribute. I agreed with Rachel insofar as I, too, thought pre-marital sex was wrong, except that I would have given a better answer (I thought) because the basis for my judgment was the Bible, the inspired Word of God, not the human institution of the Church.

But was my thought really any better than Rachel’s answer? Even more importantly, was it even genuinely different from hers? Wasn’t her appeal to the authority of the Church merely an indirect way of affirming biblical teaching? And wasn’t the biblical standard to which I was appealing in my mind actually something that I had learned, not from the Bible directly, but from other, historically conditioned speakers and writers, who had declared that theirs was the correct biblical interpretation?

I must acknowledge in retrospect that Fr. Frank was correct in praising Rachel’s answer, even if he may have been just a little patronizing. She was a Catholic, and, thus, was obligated to obey the teachings of the Church. In her role as a Catholic lay person, the idea that she should follow the rules that she had been taught without second-guessing them, was the proper Catholic attitude, and Fr. Frank needed to affirm it, lest he give her reason to stray.

Vatican 2 Revelation

Let me back-pedal for a second and add another word concerning the official post-Vatican II stance on revelation. In the previous entry I directed your attention to the fact that Roman Catholic theology relies on both Scripture and tradition. As a result, it has become customary to speak of a “two-source” doctrine of revelation.” However, we need to take another look at one of the excerpts from Vatican II and notice that it stipulates a single source of revelation prior to its division into scripture and tradition as well as a unified set of conclusions and applications subsequent to the division.

For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. … Sacred tradition and Scripture(Abbott, 117).

There is a single revelation, designated as the word of God, and, if I may put it in this way, there are "two points of access" to this revelation.

If I were a Catholic Christian, I personally might get confused on how to process the information that comes up through these two points of access, but my opinion would actually bear negligible significance since I would not have the privilege of making such decisions. Nor would it be much different if I were a priest, or, in many cases, even a bishop. It is the magisterium that has the authority to declare what is the word of God revealed in Scripture and tradition. To quote,

The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (emphasis mine, Abbot, 117-18).

Needless to say, since I was a Baptist at the time, Rachel's standard could not apply to me, because I believed then, and still do now, that our beliefs and moral convictions should have a biblical basis. But I must hasten to add that my answer would be no better than Rachel’s if I didn't practice my reliance on the Bible, and there we encounter an obvious point of vulnerability.

Protestantism lays claim to the Bible alone as authoritative, summarized with the phrase sola scriptura, one of the slogans of the Reformation when people still spoke Latin. Now, I said that I wasn’t going to make this matter easy for me, so I must confess that Protestant practices often do not live up to Protestant claims. Saying so doesn’t make it so. In a recent issue of Christian Scholar’s Review [43, 3 (Spring 2014):233-39], David Crump laments the fact that a number of important people in his particular denomination apparently believe that the Bible is an unclear book whose teaching is confusing to most readers. Consequently, his denomination urges that, since their three creedal confessions provide the correct understanding of Scripture, it is to these that one should look so as “to be formed and governed by them.” Since he did not hide his affiliation, I’m not committing an indiscretion when I say that I was particularly struck by this exposé since the name of his denomination includes the word “Reformed.” Assuming that he described the state of affairs correctly (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), we may have here a case where the appeal to human authority may be at least as strong as in contemporary Catholicism.

Coming at the issue from the other side, it is not difficult to demonstrate that, in the absence of a magisterium, a part of theological Christendom that we place under the heading of "Protestantism," can become downright chaotic. Speaking with some hyperbole, if the Bible is the one and only source of revelation, and if every person is free to interpret the Bible according to their best insights, there would appear to be no limit to what a person may come up with. Lamentable as that situation is, it is the price one pays for the absence of an institution that supervises theological creativity. However, since we want to deal with reality and not just a thought experiment, we need not let the aberrations set the standard. If one takes away the hyperbole, discards clearly absurd, non-sequitur doctrinal formulations, and stipulates earnest study of the Bible in keeping with a rational methodology (i.e., a historic-grammatical hermeneutic), the collection of Protestant groups that we need to take seriously in this discussion shrinks very quickly.

In the previous entry, I defined the Protestant view of the historic Christian faith as the teachings of the New Testament, subsequently clarified by councils and various theologians. The historic Christian faith is what we find in Scripture. If a belief violates Scripture it is false; if it is not based on Scripture, it is not obligatory to believe it. On the one hand, the result is that there are differences between denominations and other Christian groups; on the other hand, at least in theory, it is possible, even commendable, to discern truth among various options by studying Scripture without (again in theory) having to postulate a pre-determined outcome.

Still, if I claim that my theology is based directly on the Bible, am I not deceiving myself or others? Don’t my colleagues and I make reference to the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, not to mention the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, in the formulation of the ISCA statement of faith? Are we or are we not committed to sola scriptura?

The very simple answer is that we are. The nature of the answer depends on how much importance we ascribe to the outcomes of such councils and meetings. It is my position, shared by others, that the various councils, whether early, late, or recent, are not authoritative on a par with the Bible, but in various instances clarify bibilical truth.

We need to recognize three important distinctions, namely between what we conside to be 1) beliefs necessary for salvation, 2) a true and complete theology, and 3) requirements set by humans for membership in a human institution. If I may use myself as an example, I hold to a set of beliefs that I trust have biblical support. Furthermore, I'm inclined to think that they come closest to those biblical teachings that I would label as the “historic Christian faith.” That attitude, should not be either startling or viewed as a sign of arrogance. Everyone engaged in serious theological work should presumably be motivated to get as close to the truth as they can and believe that, in all humility and in full view of their fallibility, their work up to that point is the best one can do. For evangelicals that means believing that their work comes as close as possible to biblical truth, aka the "historic Christian faith." If not, perhaps one can find room  among the radical pseudo-theologians representing "secular," "process," or "Buddhist" Christianity for whom the biblical content is a hindrance. But even they +

Still, I certainly do not think that a person must be in agreement (let alone “complete agreement”) with my beliefs in order to be saved. Norm Geisler made a noteworthy presentation on this topic at the first organizational meeting of ISCA. I’m using my own words to summarize it. First he demonstrated that the theological planks underlying the gospel message are numerous and ramified. However, what is necessary for saving faith is not to subscribe to the entire doctrinal structure but merely to believe in a meaningful sense that you are a sinner separated from God, that Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins and was resurrected, and that by reliance on Christ you are reconciled to God, none of which can be believed to be true without first of all accepting the Bible as true.

Speaking for myself again, the true Church is undoubtedly populated by a lot of people with whom I have a lot of theological disagreements. I cannot avoid the inference that, therefore, they do not subscribe entirely to the doctrines of the historic Christian faith as I understand it. But they are certainly Christians.

Please do not read relativism into what I’m writing here. I’m not saying that any person’s beliefs are just as good as or, worse yet, as true as anyone else’s. Nor am I implying that it is not possible to adjudicate between beliefs. For example, if you and I have mutually exclusive views on the meaning of the Lord’s supper, then one of us is wrong, and one of us is right, and since you are wrong, you should learn to understand the Bible the way I do. Or, conceivably, vice versa. (I trust no one misses the tongue in my cheek here.)

Not every error is a “heresy,” a term that I reserve for an error of such proportion that it undercuts the basics of Christianity. This observation does not demonstrate a delusion of magnanimity or early-outbreak-humility on my part; it’s just a reality with which we all have to live. If someone teaches a doctrinal opinion with which I disagree, I need to learn to live with that fact. If possible we can discuss it or debate it, but I can't (or shouldn't) be offended by it.  

Here's a perhaps amusing sidelight. When Hegel had become a quite popular professor in Berlin, some time in the 1820s, a certain Catholic clergyman used to sit in on his lectures. One day Hegel made a rather disparaging (and, in my opinion, ignorant) remark about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. “Political correctness” is a lot older than you may think because the auditor immediately reported Hegel to the authorities for his intolerance toward the Catholic confession. In his defense Hegel stated that, as it was his job as a Protestant to teach Protestant thought in a Protestant department, a Catholic believer who would be offended by his statements would best be advised not to attend his lectures. My point is that, even though I may wish that everyone shared my beliefs,  since they obviously don't I need to make accommodations.

Without considering a Christian whose beliefs on certain points of doctrine are different from mine as a non-Christian or lesser Christian, I’m still free to limit my association in various contexts to those whose views come closer to mine than others. I don’t expect to be permitted to join an organization that mandates acceptance of the Old Testament Apocrypha as inspired; and I don’t understand why someone who accepts them would be upset if he can’t join an organization that explicitly denies their inspiration. Somewhere someone (to whom I would gladly give credit if I knew his identity) uttered the phrase: “A gospel so simple that a child can understand it; a theology so profound that it”—hm, I don’t remember what the ast part was, so I’ll supply my own: “boggles the mind.” Next time I'll stop qualifying and try to go further with the issue of how we can bring off such a desirable result.

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Wednesday, July 16th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 1


Cardinal Newman

Recently, there has been some discussion on the meaning of the phrase, "the historic Christian faith," and, with some misgivings, I have decided to put forth a point of view on this issue. Sadly, a part of the "debate" has consisted of some posts vilifying Dr. Norman Geisler personally. (I am encouraged that I have been corrected for an earlier statement and that those posts are not entirely anonymous, at least as of today, which does not lessen my sadness by much, though.)  What we do need is some doctrinal clarity based on recognizing the distinctions among various Christian traditions and debating the crucial differences.

For example, it is silly to criticize someone of the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity for holding to Eastern Orthodox doctrine; we may engage the Eastern Orthodox beliefs in debate, but to ridicule someone within that tradition for holding the appropriate doctrines and teaching them makes no sense. Thus, insofar as some of the views expressed in those posts have been of a personal nature, I hardly think that I can rectify the situation, though I wish I could. However, I'm hoping that I may make a contribution to the discussion for the sake of those who are studying and writing on this topic in good faith. If I'm making a false assumption so that the stipulation of good faith includes all participants, so much the better. I'm not out to nail anyone, but to provide some needed information.

I feel silly even writing this, but please look at my record and know that I'm not Catholic-bashing. I do disagree with a number of Catholic doctrines, and I have never disguised the fact that I think that both the Council of Trent and Vatican I incorporated highly problematic statements. These are conceptual and theological matters. Still, as I have illustrated at various points, other than doctrinal disagreements, I'm essentially on congenial terms with the Catholic world. Having crossed European boundaries with papers identifying me as the son of a Catholic priest should demonstrate that my disagreements are doctrinal only. (Some day, as I have promised before, I must remember to tell you that story. But now is not the time.)

There are two ways in which one can understand the phrase "the historic Christian faith."

1.  The Christian faith as it has developed over time as expressed in the Bible as well as the biblical interpretations declared by a magisterium (e.g., a pope or a patriarch) in the light of traditional developments, so that their pronouncements become obligatory alongside the Bible. This approach characterizes the Roman Catholic understanding of revelation. The second Vatican council declared:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this Word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation (Dei Verbum) in  Walter Abbott, ed. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1964), p. 117. Hereafter: Abbott.

2. The Christian faith as taught in the New Testament, and as clarified by councils and various theologians, most often in the face of error, whereby only the New Testament is considered to be ultimately authoritative. This view is, of course, the ideal adopted by evangelicals and free churches.

In the first part of this discussion I'm going to copy most of a paper--with a little editing--that I wrote a long time ago as a graduate student at TEDS in a course on the "Documents of Vatican II" under Dr. David Wells. The part that I'm copying here is a brief reproduction of the debate among some Catholic theologians faced with the undeniable fact that Catholic dogma has changed over the centuries. New statements have been added to the collection of those that believers are obligated to hold as true. They are placed under the heading of de fide; "according to the faith" and must be accepted. Some recent examples are the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope (Vatican I, 1869-1870), the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary (Pope Pius IX, 1854), and the Assumption of St. Mary (Pope Pius XII, 1950). Cardinal Henry Newman (1801-1890), whose personal convictions moved from Calvinist Evangelical to Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, provided some influential insights on how to understand the nature of change in the Roman Church. (Newman is now officially considered "beatified," so one could refer to him as the "Blessed Henry Newman." Canonization as a saint usually requires prior beatification, but does not necessarily follow.)

Cardinal Henry Newman and the Development of Doctrine

This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit for there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down.Abbot, 116.

This rather innocent looking statement, promulgated by Vatican II, actually is the result of an enormous compromise between two views that had been striving with each other for more than 100 years in the Catholic Church. The issue is the principle of the development of doctrine: Is there such a thing, and, if so, what develops, the doctrine itself or merely our understanding of it? The dialogue has been going on for a long time, but it took on its present form in 1845, when Cardinal Newman published his celebrated Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Said Newman,

If Christianity is a fact, and impresses an idea of itself on our minds and is a subject matter of exercises of the reason, that idea will in course of time expand into a multitude of ideas, and aspects of ideas, connected and harmonious with one another, and in themselves determinate and immutable, as is the objective fact itself which is thus represented. (II, I, 41. Reprint Sheed & Ward, 1960; hereafter: Essay)


We have here a clear statement of development of the tenets of Christianity themselves. Now compare the above assertion with the following avowal from the Oath against Modernism, decreed by Pius X in 1910 (D. S. n. 3541), which was required of all officeholders in the Catholic Church until 1967:

I sincerely receive the doctrine of faith which has been transmitted from the apostles to us by the orthodox fathers always in one same sense and one same doctrine; and I therefore reject the heretical concept of the evolution of doctrines passing from one sense to another which differs from what the church formally acknowledged. 

This apparent rejection of the ongoing development of doctrine represents the other side of the debate; it clearly turns down the idea of any genuine development of doctrine. The purpose of this paper is to elaborate on some of the facets of this debate, particularly concentrating on Newman’s theory and its influence on Vatican II.

Newman’s Theory of the Development of Doctrine. Cardinal Newman was not the only writer to be concerned with the problem of doctrinal development. As can be easily guessed based on the above quotation, Newman’s theory was for the most part viewed with suspicion, possibly even hostility, at the beginning of the 20th century. The view of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) could be considered a dominant one until Newman's became more popular. Bossuet maintained that doctrinal development was primarily the logical extrapolation of already existing (propositional) beliefs. For that matter, he asserted that if growth does not always take place according to the canons of logic, it still amounts to a change in the minds of the believers, but not of the doctrine itself (Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of Doctrinal Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1957. Hereafter: Chadwick).

Another influential theologian in this area was Johann Adam Möhler, who “tended to unite a classicist emphasis on the preservation of dogma with a romanticist appreciation of its continual vital rejuvenation…” ["Scripture and Tradition on Recent Catholic Thought" in Vatican II: The Theological Dimension, ed. by Anthony D. Lee (Thomist Press, 1963), 160]. Such hypotheses continued to be accepted more easily than Newman’s, except by a few theologians, who, however, had a great amount of influence in the long run. Vatican II placed Newman into the foreground of theological opinion.

Perhaps the most important reason why Newman’s view is the one most acclaimed today is its candid historical realism. He was willing to accept as objective fact that there had been significant doctrinal developments over the history of the Roman Church. In the Essay his purpose was not to prove the existence of development, but to devise a hypothesis to account for the great amount of difference between patristic and modern (i.e., 19th century) doctrine. The Essay is, in a sense, Newman’s "Quest for the Historical Church." He acknowledged that there is no church around today that is quite like the anti-Nicene church. But, he reasoned, there still had to be one among the ones represented today, whose roots go back to the beginnings more evidently than others. Which church is that?

“And this one thing at least is certain whatever history teaches. ... At least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism.” Essay, intro, 5, 6.

In this assessment Newman obviously also eliminated Anglicanism and not-so-obviously the Eastern Orthodox Churches as candidates and nominated the Roman Catholic Church for the honor. He asserted,St. Ambrose

On the whole all parties will agree that, of all existing systems, the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the church of the fathers… Did St. Ignatius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would mistake for his own. Essay, II, III, 5.

So, in spite of considerable changes, he believed that  the Roman church was the one most similar to patristic Christianity, and, thus, constituted the authentic, historical, Christian communion.

It is easy to interpret these thoughts as Newman's defense of Roman Catholicism. But to do so would be placing an undue burden on his aims. He had already assumed that the Roman Church was the true one, but sought to find a rational way to integrate this commitment with some apparent difficulties. His defense of Roman Catholicism and his conversion is found in his book, Apologia pro Vitua Sua.)  If these considerations had been meant as an argument for Rome, a somewhat inane objection could be raised: Given the fact of change, why should not the church exhibiting the greatest amount of change be the truest one, rather than the one with the least change, however one might measure it? Chadwick, coming to Newman's rescue, emphasized that this objection rests on a misunderstanding:

The argument is not: “History shows that change has occurred: therefore we must adopt mutability instead of immutability as a general principle.” The argument is: “The less mutability has occurred the truer is the modern church: but since history shows that some mutability has occurred even in the least mutable of churches, we need a theory…” (Chadwick, 144).

And then a leading possibility would be Newman’s theory. The church with the most changes would not be the true one as long as one assumes with Newman that immutability is the rule and mutability is only an exception. But one must account for the obvious reality of some significant changes.

Newman's answer to this problem found its basis in his view of Christianity as an idea. He classified ideas into three categories  (Essay, I, I, 2-4. This passage is the source for all ideas and quotations in the three points below):

1. An idea that represents an object is “commensurate with the sum total of its possible aspects, however they may vary in the separate consciousness of individuals.” In fact, no one knows such an idea exhaustively. The idea of an object is usually only known through acquaintance with its various facets. If there is growth in such an idea it is only in the understanding of it, not in the idea itself. It is important to keep in mind here that this category contains only the ideas of objects, viz. the mental pictures of things.

2. “There is no one aspect deep enough to exhaust the contents of a real idea, no one term or proposition which will serve to define it.” The ideas in this category do not refer directly to objects. Certainly there are some words which come closer to the real content of the idea than others, but they cannot be described exhaustively as long as they are limited to one aspect of the idea. There is such a thing as a “leading idea” for a system, but even the leading idea can only represent a single aspect.

3. In contrast to ideas of objects or, say, mathematical ideas, there are living ideas. These are ideas that may have a humble beginning in some pronouncement. Once they are received by other people, they start to grow and develop. How does a living idea develop? Newman gave a vivid description of the process:

At first men will not fully realize what it is that moves them, and will express and explain themselves inadequately…New lights will be brought to bear upon the original statements of the doctrine put forward; judgments and aspects will accumulate. After a while some definite teaching emerges… It will be surveyed too in its relation to other doctrine or facts, to other natural laws or established customs, to the varying circumstances of the times and places, to other religions, polities, philosophies, as the case may be.… Thus in time it will have grown into an ethical code, or into a system of government, or into a theology. … [It] will after all be little more than the proper representative of one idea, being in substance what that idea meant from the first, its complete image as seen in the combination of diversified aspects, with the suggestions and corrections of many minds, and the illustrations of many experiences. (Essay, I, I, 7).

It must be reiterated that this growth is found in the idea, not merely in the understanding of it. It is a process of development in the living world; logical deductions on a piece of paper could not predict what turns the history of the idea will take in the future. Only as it encounters new situations, new people, and new ideas, can an idea slowly proceed to maturity. There are two famous quotations from Newman, without which a discussion of his theory would be incomplete:

It is sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable and purer and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full(Essay, I, I, 7).

So, it follows that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." (Ibid.)

There are four kinds of development that have nothing to do with the kind of development which Newman is talking about: corruption as well as mathematical, physical, and material changes. There are, however, other legitimate methods by which an idea may be develop (Essay, I, II, 1-10).

1. political development, for example the growth of a constitution;

2. logical development (at least to a limited extent);

3. historical development; this is how the canon of the New Testament was formed;

4. moral development;

5. metaphysical development, the “unpacking” of an idea.

As is to be expected, Newman believed that all of these kinds of development are found in the history of Christian doctrine. The question arises: Given all these ways of developing over a long period of time, what guarantee is there that the finished product will, indeed, be the true image of the original idea? Let us remind ourselves that Newman did want to retain mutability as the exception to immutability. Thus, the proportion of change must be small in contrast to the amount of similarity. Nevertheless, the similarity needs some means to keep it on track, and Newman finds such a guarantor in the magisterium (Essay, II, II, 1-14). As he remarked in another place, “Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of his words, is imperative.” (Newman, On the Inspiration of Scripture, "Essay II," ed. by J. Derek Holmes and Robert Murray, S.J. (Washinton, DC: Corpus Books, 1967; orig. 1884), 111.

Papal Encyclicals. As mentioned above, Newman’s theory did have an impact upon the world, but it was not exactly received with open arms. In fact, much was said and written against it. Modern advocates for Newman believe that he is free of the charges made against him and his theory.  We must return to his own proposal shortly; but for right now, at the risk of some discontinuity, it is appropriate to turn to the other side of the intra-confessional debate among Catholics.

The turn of the century saw the boom of modernism. The first pope of that era, St. Pius X (1903 to 1914), made the war against this movement his special cause. It is in this context that we must understand the reaction toward Newman and his theory. When the oath against modernism so blatantly condemned the “evolution of doctrine,” it may not have had Newman in mind, though this is a point of debate. In any event, excesses indulged in by modernists who found a good starting point in what may have been a misapplication of Newman’s theory were the primary target. Still, we cannot exclude the possibility that the magisterium may have included Newman's view.  The encyclical Lamentabili Sane (July 3, 1907), condemned and proscribed a number of propositions that would severely limit any theory of the development of doctrine (quoted from Anne Fremantle, ed., The Papal Encyclicals in their Historical Context (NY: Putnam, 204, 207).

21. Revelation, constituting the object of the Catholic faith, was not completed with the apostles.

22. The doctrines the church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are interpretations of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort.

23. Opposition may, and actually does, exist between the facts narrated in Sacred Scripture and the Church's doctrines which rest on them. Thus the critic may reject as false facts the church holds as most certain.

58. Truth is no more immutable than man himself, since it evolved with him, in him, and through him.

59. Christ did not teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all times and all men, but rather inaugurated a religious movement adapted or to be adapted to different times and places.

60. Christian Doctrine was originally Judaic. Through successive evolutions it became first Pauline, then Joanine [sic], finally Hellenic and universal.

Clearly, some of the points of these propositions have nothing in common with what Newman advocated. But there are some issues raised here that are related to his view.

Even as late as 1950, did Pius XII in the encyclical Humani generis attempt to eliminate as much “relativism” as possible from Catholic theology. He was not opposed to new thought but insisted that revealed matters ought not to be held as subject to a kind of “evolution.”

Where do these decrees leave Newman? If they condemn anything at all, it is the idea that revelation was added to or improved upon right up to modern times. This is exactly the criticism that Chadwick leveled against Newman. He claimed that Newman’s theory can hardly get around proposition 21 (see above) of Lamentabili.

Just as the logicians have to be asked the question how their notion of logical development can be regarded as a meaningful use of the word logical, so there is a question still to ask about Newman. Nearly all theologians appear to be agreed that, in accordance with the decree of the holy office Lamentabili in 1907, it is necessary to maintain that revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. This doctrine of revelation excludes Suarez and Lugo. It probably excludes some parts of the Essay on Development. The question then for those who think Newman’s theology is Catholic is this: these new doctrines, of which the church had a feeling or inkling but of which she was not conscious — in what meaningful sense may it be asserted that these new doctrines are not “new revelation”? (Chadwick, 195)

Further Exposition of Newman's Theory. It is generally believed that Newman answered Chadwick's question himself in a paper that was not published until 1958. [C. S. Dessain, "An Unpublished Paper by Cardinal Newman on the Development of Doctrine" Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958):324-55].  Because Newman wrote this essay in response to a query by a certain Fr. Flanagan, it is now commonly referred to as "the Flanagan Paper." In this exposition Newman put more stress on the idea that the Church started out its considerations of a doctrine—rather similar to the thought that a poet may want to convey, but cannot be completely expressed in human language. From this starting point actually nothing novel develops; subsequent developments would always have been implicit in the original idea. So, we are left with the rather paradoxical situation that all developments have been (at least implicitly) with the church from the very outset. Yet when these developments come to light, they appear as new in the best sense of the word.

Actually, this paradox is not as glaring as it may appear at first. It was not the church as a whole that contained all future doctrines implicitly, but only the apostles. It is true that “he who really knows one part, may be said to know all,as "ex pede Herculem”; nonetheless, only an apostle could have this kind of knowledge instantaneously. It will take the church her entire existence to regain the knowledge enjoyed by the apostles. For: “What the Apostle is in his own person, that the Church is in her whole evolution of ages, per modium unius, a living present treasury of the mind of the Spirit of Christ” ("Flanagan Paper," 332). He continued,

Thus the apostle had the fullness of revealed knowledge, a fullness which they could as little realize to themselves, as the human mind as such, can have all its thoughts before it at once. They are elicited according to the occasion. A man of genius cannot go about with the genius in his hand: in an Apostle’s mind a great part of his knowledge is from the nature of the case latent or implicit; and taking two Apostles, St. Paul and St. John, according to their respective circumstances, they either may teach the same thing in common, or again what is explicit in St. John may be latent in St. Paul. (Ibid.)

Thus Newman did hold that all revelation ended with the apostles. However since so much revelation was latent because it was inapplicable to apostolic circumstances, the Church must now rediscover such a revelation. The fruits of this task are then brought to light by the process of doctrinal development. Nothing is being “re-revealed.” To invent an illustration: If we were to meet a resurrected St. Bartholomew today and ask him for his opinion on the dogma of the bodily Assumption of St. Mary (not declared to be de fide until 1950), he would recognize it as being true and give his enthusiastic approval for it. 

Karl Rahner. Rahner (1904-84), who was greatly impressed by Newman’s work, paid special attention to the problem of whether anything new can be revealed according to this interpretation. His answer turned out to be negative; however, we must recognize that agreement is based on a "non-Neumanian" understanding of what constitutes revelation.  “To start with, revelation is not the communication of a definite number of propositions.” (Theological Investigations 1:39-77) One almost needs to go no further — if this assertion of Rahner's is true, it is obvious that there is always room for the innovation of new propositions, expressing new insights, without running the risk of countering Lamentabili. To Rahner, revelation was an event, a “happening,” the source of God's Heilsgeschichte. Then, this is what it means for revelation to be closed:

Now there is nothing more to come: no new age, no other aion, no fresh plan of salvation, but only the unveiling of what is already “here” as God’s presence at the end of human time stretched out to breaking point: the Last and eternally the latest, newest day (Ibid.).

Rahner maintained the necessity of doctrinal development. God speaks to all of mankind through history, and it is necessary that revelation be applied concretely to any particular historical situation. “It is only then that they become propositions of faith, emerging into the real, historically conditioned world of men as decision and living deed.” In short, dogma must continually adapt itself to human conditions.

Vatican II. At Vatican II, the issue of doctrinal development came into a new focus. As we already saw in the opening quote of this paper, the Council reached a compromise with a mixture of Newman’s view and a more conservative approach. The first sentence is definitely in the spirit of Newman’s theology: “This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit.” (This and the subsequent quotations are located in Abbott, 116).  It is typical for this Council, which contended for a stronger view of God’s direct action on the church, to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit as the guarantor, whereas Newman stressed the role of the magisterium. The next two sentences in the section both represent rather traditional theology.

For there is a growth in the doctrine of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Luke 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth (Ibid).

But then, suddenly, we can hear Cardinal Newman’s voice ringing through again:

For, as the centuries succeed one another, the church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Ibid).

Pius IX

This method of bridging two perspectives into one general statement creates an ambivalence for its interpretation, and that result, it is generally held, was the intent of the Council, seeking to bridge potential divisions. Consequently, it becomes apparent that Vatican II has not closed the door on the discussion of this issue — it may not even have said anything startlingly definitive on the subject of development.  One is still able to retain a quite traditional view if one so desires. What one cannot do any longer is to condemn a view such as Newman’s on the basis of the Church's declarations. A view of organic development of doctrine has been legitimized, even if it has not been endorsed.

Thus, the debate on Newman continues. The approach taken by Vatican gave impetus to add a fresh criterion for judging Catholic doctrine, namely whether it is in the spirit of ecumenicity. On that ground, Anthony A. Stephenson, S.J., rejected Newman's approach. [Journal of Ecumenical Studies 3(1966):463-85. Herafter: JES]. Stephenson argued that, given his dependence on the magisterium, Newman de-emphasized Scripture, misplaced biological terminology, was unduly authoritarian, and even advocated continuing revelation. “In my view it is necessary only to state Newman’s theory for it to be seen to be untrue and unecumenical” (JES 5:370-77).

Edward Kelly responded to Stephenson’s charges by pointing out that authority is absolutely necessary to know what is revelation and what is not. Scripture cannot be an adequate guide; it is the Church’s task to formulate the teachings of Scripture (JES 5:365-70). Kelly tried to show that Stephenson did not rightly understand Newman; but this defense becomes questionable with the assertion, “Development, for Newman, is simply man’s growth in understanding of God’s revelation.”  As we have seen, in Newman's theory development goes far beyond growth in understanding.


I will pick up on this topic and elaborate in the next entry on the second option of the two with which I started. In the meantime, someone may raise the question of what, if anything, I have actually said in this lengthy piece. Well, I have not reached my conclusion, but I'm trying to have you consider a question. I you accept Roman Catholic doctrine, you presumably believe in apostolic succession, viz. that the Church is led by a hierarchy, which ultimately goes back to Jesus and his designation of Peter as his representative. However, the consideration I have presented here should engender some questions, and, of course, you are free to answer "yes" to each of them. First of all, is Newman's way of understanding the development of doctrine acceptable? Then, further, even given the possibility that the true pontiff always stands in a meaningful link to his predecessor, would that presumed fact guarantee the perpetuation of true doctrine? Can one honestly maintain that the Roman Catholic Church as it exists now most closely resembles the primitive church in its doctrines and practices? Is it possible to explain the growth or development of doctrines in a coherent way that avoids the alternative of new revelation?

And, of course, the rest of us must address the question of whether, once we have denied apostolic succession and accepted certain developments within the Church that occurred outside of the supervision of a magisterium, it is legitimate for us to consider ours to be the historic Christian faith. How do we explain the fact that we, too, invoke the councils, Reformation doctrines, and even conclusions proclaimed by theological conventions held in the twentieth century in the American Midwest. We need to continue with this topic.


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Monday, July 14th 2014


Bastille Day

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: about half

Mystery BookMark S. Phillips has been posting updates on Facebook concerning a book that he is reprinting and republishing. I'm excited about it as well. Just to clarify, since it's about 79 years old, it's definitely not one of mine (and you can get all of my titles from Wipf & Stock anyway). It is a book that has played the role of "steady companion" for me over the last few years. You, too, may find that its reappearance on the market will be quite helpful. Now, what was its title again?

Third attempt. Your mildly frustrated bloggist has had to deal with a few little medical issues over the last week or so, which engendered a lack of blog posts. Then, both Saturday and Sunday evening he attempted to write entries, which he eventually deemed to be unusable. (Who would have thought that I would ever issue myself a rejection slip?) He saw that he had to dismiss the initial one because it had all of the makings of a never-ending stream-of-consciousness diatribe on global economics. Yesterday's second attempt was a little bit of an improvement, but filled with far too many hypothetical assumptions and abstract illustrations, that would not have gripped the interest of the reader. So, I think I will skip that topic for now, and perhaps return to it when I've discovered how to streamline it towards intelligibility.

I'm still in shock over the fact that Germany won the World Cup again! It's a happy shock, of course, but I'm having just tiny bit of difficulty realizing that the team I was cheering for (my country of origin) actually is World Champion. Naturally, I can't gloat since I didn't contribute anything to the victory--unless, of course,  in some bizarre way my emigration from Germany made it possible for them to be as good as they proved to be. So, now I'm wondering whether there might be a principle here akin to the hilarious "Mick Jagger Curse." It is a fact that the United States has not won the world cup since I became a US citizen (nor before either, but we'll ignore that part), so maybe if I were to leave from here, the US would take the championship. -- But I have no intent whatsoever to fulfill that condition.

Speaking of such things, our Fourth of July was a wonderfully relaxing time with Nick & Meghan and Seth & Amber, plus a few canines. It was the perfect night for fireworks with virtually no wind. Some of the rockets that we launched went straight up, performed their regulation duty of exploding and displaying their beautiful colors, and then returned straight down to earth again where we were sitting, almost hitting one of us (which would have been harmless, I guess) several times.

While we're on such matters, it's Bastille Day in France. June and I will not observe it, except maybe if by chance we were to consume some French Fries later today, though that is not on the present agenda. I just ran across an op-ed site that exhorted Americans to recognize the significance of the day and the underlying similarities in the philosophies behind the American Independence Day and France's Bastille Day. That's all very well, but once again I need to invoke the maxim that "all things are identical as long as you ignore the differences." The Americans fought against unacceptable practices by their colonial masters and set up a lasting republic, while the French toppled their own government in a revolution that defeated itself by leading to the reign of terror and rebounding into Napoleon's rule, which was consumed by his desire to conquer the world.

French Revolution ChurchFurthermore, let's not forget that the French Revolution included suppression of the Church. Many church buildings were converted for the worship of reason, for which the tri-partite slogan, "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité," had become the liturgy.  So, we certainly can join today's French people in celebrating the virtues of liberty, equality, and the recognition of a connectedness among human beings.  However, should also take account of the historical origin of that phrase. The French revolutionaries were basing these virtues on purely humanistic premises and, consequently, transformed all of the (perhaps) beautiful intentions of their revolution into several decades of ugliness.

A purely humanistic philosophy cannot go beyond the philosopher's own opinion of what he considers to be the greatest virtues of a human being. Thus, it cannot help but reflect the philosopher's self-image since it will serve as his fundamental blue print of what it means to be a good person. Philosophers are not going to make themselves look bad by creating an ideal picture of a human being that contradicts their self-perception. To the contrary, they will see themselves as, if not the highest culmination of enlightened humanity, at least as being on the way to this ideal. Furthermore, as a result, such a high appraisal of a person's self-image cannot avoid catering to his self-interests. Finally, if self-interest becomes the underlying conceptual structure of a society, clashes between different interest groups are bound to occur. Such was the outcome of the French Revolution.

For an interesting example that should contribute to having a realistic perspective on the French Revolution, see the post by Hal Gordon on PunditWire.

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Sunday, July 6th 2014


Yezidi and the Rapture

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: a little sick today

Yezidi ManBruno Corduan, my father, who is eighty-eight years old and lives in Germany, has just set out on a new phase of his life and ministry. Over the next few days, he's leaving the retirement community in which he and my mother have lived for about twenty years (she passed away about four years ago), and is moving to the city of Neuwied, located on the Rhine. A Mennonite church there has asked him to come and be a part of the ministry to Middle Eastern refugees. In particular, he will work with the Yezidi, a Kurdish group that is at home primarily in Iraq and Turkey and has established a rather sizeable refugee community in Germany.

Yezidi WomanThe Yezidi are largely unknown in the United States. (Please be aware of the many different spellings of names associated with them.) They are an IndoEuropean group with their own dialect, a different culture from their neighbors, and a religion that defies any kind of pigeon-holing. Their present form is due to a reformer named Shaykh Adi (107?-1160), but there is virtually no reliable information concerning its earlier phases (assuming that it had one or more). However, there is an enormous amount of speculation that passes itself off as factual, but strikes me as patently improbable if not impossible. Since clarifying the debate here would require my writing more on this topic than I should right now, please allow me to make a few dogmatic assertions that I promise I will defend some other time. (So could you, by the way, if you just looked at the core of the religion in a short summary, rather than at clearly accidental resemblances to other belief systems on its fringe.)

The religion of the Yezidi is not:

--derived from Zoroastrianism (though they may share some roots), the Wikipedia claim notwithstanding;

--derived from Islam (though it could not help but be influenced by Islamic practices and terminology once Islam surrounded it);

--the original monotheistic religion of the world, going back four thousand years, from which all other monotheistic religions are derived.

It is presently:

--a monotheistic religion, in which God is remote, and in which governance of the world has been given over to seven archangels, the chief of whom is called Tawûsê Melek. He is iconographically represented by a peacock. Since I'm trying not to overextend this short description I will just declare that he is not the devil, although Yezidi have frequently been extremely misunderstood to the point of being called devil-worshippers by outsiders;

--a religion in which there is no devil; all events occurring in the world are said to be under the control of Tawûsê Melek;

--a religion that maximizes an emphasis on ritual and moral purity (though it is not dualistic);

--a religion that does not proselytize;

--a religion that only sanctions marriage within a person's social layer, of which there are three. Viz., the society is, anthropologically speaking, endogamous.

German readers will, of course, recognize the Yezidi from Karl May's books, Durch die Wüste and Durchs wilde Kurdistan. His descriptions are clearly based on the reports of people who had actually visited the Yezidi and studied their beliefs and practices. They are quite accurate.

I may go into more detailed descriptions if there should be interest, and once I have done some more studies. In the meantime, please pray for my dad, who is stepping out in faith, or, as he would say, whom God has pulled out while all he can do is to obey by faith.

Luke 17

Can we talk about this passage without getting into a debate about the "secret rapture"? I'll try to minimize it here because that's not really the focus. Just to clarify the term for those readers whose tradition does not include Dispensationalism and the Scofield Bible: Many evangelical theologians believe that prior to Christ's second coming in glory there will be a seven-year period of tribulation, a part of which is described in the book of Revelation. At the onset of this heptad, all of the people who are true believers in Christ will be snatched up to heaven. They will suddenly be gone, and the people who are left are unbelievers and the Israelites, the latter of whom will now be converted to faith in Christ. Midway through this period (i.e. after 3 1/2 years), Anti-Christ will disclose himself, rule the world, and persecute the Jews who have now become Christians.

The tribulation will end when Christ returns publicly after the seven-year period and establishes his thousand-year reign on earth. Christians who hold to this scheme interpret this passage ("one taken, another one left") as referring to the rapture (one taken up to heaven, another one left on earth). Christians who don't share this belief tend to assign this passage an immediate fulfillment during the destruction caused by the Romans in AD 70 and possibly also a future dimension ("telescoping"), whereby "taken" then becomes being killed or harmed by the invaders.

The point of the passage is, of course, not to give us details about the end times, but 1) to encourage Christians to anticipate Christ's return and the judgment on unbelievers that is entailed by it and 2) to warn non-Christians of the suddenness of judgment.

Jesus used two illustrations to make his point: the judgment by means of the flood during Noah's time and the judgment on Gomorrah. Note that in neither case is the cause for judgment mentioned; we already know that people are sinful. The idea is that the people were obtuse to the idea that there would ever be a judgment on their sin. People in Noah's day were eating, drinking, getting married--all good things. Again, in Gomorrah the residents were eating and drinking, buying and selling, building and planting--again all good things. But the routine of life put them into a stupor so that they did not think that their other actions, which were not so good, would ever be judged. Jesus then went on to illustrate the suddenness of the judgment and the fact that there would no longer be an escape for those who had ignored God all along.

The disciples' response to this picturesque portrayal may strike us as a little bit slow. "Where, Lord?" they asked. I would suggest, though, that what they had just heard was rather overwhelming, and they returned to the point that they had understood, namely, the earlier one when Jesus had told them not to run "here" or "there" to find God's kingdom.

Jesus answered them with the enigmatic statement that the vultures will indicate the location of the corpse. Oh, how commentators of the past have attempted to discover symbolism in that sentence! I don't know whether there is a consensus now, but many interpreters believe that Jesus was actually merely citing a proverb or a common figure of speech meaning, "When it's here, you'll recognize it."

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Monday, June 30th 2014


Don't run after them!


While it's still fresh on my mind. In the World Cup, Germany just beat Algeria 2:1. All three goals were scored in overtime after the regular time ended with a rather frustrating 0:0. Whew! I'm glad they settled it before penalty kicks.
We've had really weird weather the past few days. It's been dark and cloudy during most of the day, extremely muggy and feeling as though a major storm is moving in, only to brighten up in the very late afternoon, too late for the pool.
I must correct an obvious bone-head goof on my last entry. I didn't come right out and say it, but I certainly implied that the Muslim players currently in Brazil were under particular hardship concerning Ramadan because during this time of the year the days are at their longest. To make things worse, I also addressed the question of how much of Brazil lies south of the equator (almost all of it). But it didn't occur to me to put two and two together and recognize that, consequently, on that side of the equator it's winter now, and the days are as short as they can get. There's no further significance connected to that observation. Just wanting to keep the record in order.
My work on Pure Land Buddhism is going more off and on than I have wanted it to. Here are pictures of the two men who founded the first two Pure Land schools in Japan: Honen, who founded Jodo Shu (the "Pure Land" school), and his student, Shinran, who founded Jodo Shinshu (the "True Pure Land" school). Both of them taught that calling on the name of their Buddha (Amitabha or Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light), would grant any person rebirth in a Paradise that Amitabha had created in the Western quadrant of the universe. These pictures are based on ancient illustrations, which are in the public domain and needed some sprucing up, according to my assessment.  

Honen ShonenShinran Shonen

Speaking of pictures, I just signed up for a Pinterest account, and I'm not really sure what I'm going to do with it. Thanks to those who signed up to follow me already without my having anything "pinned" up yet. I think I may try to use it to perpetuate my computer drawings of various people, at least the ones that looked like the person they were supposed to be. Any other suggestions?

(If there is a wide open space, please scroll down!)

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 17:22-25

v. 25: But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

I think I've pointed out before that the term "Son of Man," as frequently used in Jesus' day was considered to be an apocalyptic title, referring to the end times when the messiah would reveal himself. The basis for using it that way was found in Daniel 6:13-14:

I continued watching in the night visions
and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (HCSB)

The idea of a "suffering messiah" was not a common one, if it was thought about at all. "What about Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22?" we might ask. The answer is that those passages, which seem to us to be so very obvious predicting the agonies of Jesus, were not interpreted as messianic by most Jews of the 1st century AD. I'm hedging my wording a little bit and not writing in absolute terms because I do not know what every person believed or taught at the time, but the idea of the messiah, Son of David, undergoing vicarious suffering for the people would have been very, very rare.
Jesus is making it pretty clear here that before he would appear in glory, he would have to suffer, which he did on the cross. He also seems to be hinting at the notion of a bit of a delay until he reveals himself as the glorious Son of Man.
In the meantime, there would be people pretending to be his second coming and people running after those false messiah figures. There have been numerous pretenders to be the messiah in the history of Judaism after Christ, and, since it falls into the same general pattern, there have also been quite a few Muslims claiming to be the Mahdi, who fulfills a messianic role in Islam. (For more on that belief, see my compilation Groups of Islam.)
There have also been a number of people who claimed that they either were Christ or that their coming fulfilled the prophecies of the second coming of Christ. The latter group contains some fairly prominent persons.
Sun Myung MoonSun Myung Moon, pictured on the right in a photograph from AsiaNews, claimed that he had come to fulfill the mission left undone by Jesus. He granted that Christ, by his death on the cross, had provided for the forgiveness of sins for all people, but that he had fulfilled only one part of the messiah's work. His premature death on the cross left the work of reestablish a pure humanity untouched by the sin passed down by Adam and Eve. The messiah was supposed to get married and be the head of this new race. Needless to say, he taught that this particular role was reserved for him and his wife. In the meantime his followers, frequently referred to as "Moonies," would begin the process of renovating humanity by marrying outside of their ethnicity and culture. These unions, which would also add the couples to the new race were arranged by Moon and his associates. He presided over mass weddings, some of which involved thousands of couples getting married all at the same time, each wearing identical outfits.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of Ahmadiyya Islam, headquartered in Pakistan. Ahmad stated that he was the Muslim Mahdi, the Christian messiah, and that he fulfilled the Hindu expectations of the return of Krishna.
Baha'ullahBaha'ullah, the founder of the Baha'i faith saw himself as the ninth and (at least for the time being) last of the Great Manifestations of God. That meant that he at one and the same time fulfilled the expectations of different religions, though in a forward-moving chain. Thus, Jesus was the messiah of the Jews, though the Jews did not recognize him; Muhammad was Jesus' second coming; the Bab (a 19th century Iranian religious figure) fulfilled the Islamic hope of the Mahdi; and he, Baha'ullah was the culmination of them all.
Jesus said, "Don't follow or run after them!"
But we know now that between the time that Christ said those things and now, he has already suffered and been rejected. So, how can we apply his criterion now?
Here's one suggestion: Look at what the people who claim to be Christ's second coming actually say about his redemptive work. When Jesus returns, he is certainly not going to put himself down and say that he only did half the job he was supposed to, and that's it's time for someone to jump in and finish his assignment. But that's what unites all of the claimants to be Christ's second coming. They pick away at Christ's work of atonement in order to create room for themselves as superior to Jesus.
Don't follow or run after the impostors. Study your Bible regularly so that you will not be misled by a deluded human being!


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Thursday, June 26th 2014


The Kingdom of God


Time to get caught up. I didn't want to post an entry until the good folks at Bravenet had caught on to the issue of extra lines appearing all over my blog; they are now dealing with it. Until then, we'll work around the glitches.

The World Cup is now down to the best or luckiest sixteen teams. In the group most relevant to me, Portugal beat Ghana, and Germany beat the U.S. Nevertheless, based on the records of the three games each of the four teams played against each other, Germany and the U.S. are moving on. From hereon out, it's win-or-be-eliminated. On Monday Germany is playing Algeria who came out second in their group.

IrfanThe entire Algerian team as well as a number of other players on different teams are facing an interesting problem, namely that on Saturday Ramadan is beginning for Muslims all over the world. During this month of fasting, one must begin the day by taking a light breakfast before sunrise. Then, one may not eat again until after sunset. This evening meal, called iftar, is often shared by an entire community. During the daylight hours, one may not take in any food or drink, not even one's own saliva. Some players are going to take advantage of the rule that fasting may be postponed by travelers or soldiers in action, while others will take a stricter line and undertake the observance despite the rigors involved in playing soccer in Brazil in the middle of the summer. South AmericaBecause the Islamic calendar is a purely lunar one (with no built-in adjustment), their year is about eleven days shorter than the solar one, and consequently all annual observances, including Ramadan, move around the solar calendar. During this time of year, when the days are the longest and the weather is the hottest, it's a whole lot more demanding to maintain the fast than during, say, the winter months. On Tuesday, the U.S. will be up against Belgium. I'll talk about Belgium some other time.
While watching today's match together (via Skype) Cousin Wilfried and I were discussing the relationship of Brazil to the equator. I thought the entire country was south of the equator; he was of the opinion that the equator went through at least a northern slice of the country. Of course, he was right. See the accompanying map for details.

A word about my allusion to Søren Kierkegaard in an entry of a short while ago. If I may quote myself: 'The person who does more religious stuff and displays more piety on a daily basis than someone else does not necessarily have more faith. I think Kierkegaard might even have said 'less.'"  I was not just thinking of the overall scheme that he expounded in Stages along Life's Way among other places, but the somewhat controversial passage in Soren KierkegaardConcluding Unscientific Postscripts (p. 210):

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity goes into God's house, the house of the true God, with the knowledge of a true conception of God, and now prays, but prays in untruth; and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, even though his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where then is there more truth? The one prays in untruth to the true God and therefore in truth worships an idol. (CUP, 201)

This short passage, taken out of context, could be taken to mean that the sincere pagan is accepted by God, but Kierkegaard didn't really have the pagan as his focal point. What he was getting at, as usual, was the passion-less religion of the so-called Christian. It is generally accepted that Kierkegaard was not saying in this passage that the idolater's passion is sufficient to overcome his lack of content truth. In other words, Kierkegaard did not intend to make the idolater's subjectivity take the place of propositional truth. His point was that propositional truth without passion isn't worth anything. If the Christian prayed properly to God without any personal commitment, he might just as well not have prayed at all. The idolater, though not knowing God, at least has the "truth of passion."

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Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 17:20-21

v. 21: No one will say, "Look here!" or "There!" For you see, the kingdom of God is among you.

The entire passage, Luke 17:20-37, is rather complex, and I would just as soon treat it in small pieces. So we'll start out with just the first two verses.
There is a lot of debate among Christian theologians concerning the exact nature of the "Kingdom of God." Given all of the various uses of the expression in the Bible, I have to conclude that the only way in which one can find a single meaning for it is by sticking to its most literal understanding: "Where God Rules." Beyond that, it seems to me to have a number of correct applications.
Here we see some Pharisees asking Jesus a highly relevant question: "When will the kingdom of God come?" It appears that what they meant by "the kingdom" would be a political kingdom installed by the messiah. (Though please remember: There was no unanimity among the people at the time concerning the messiah and the nature of his kingdom either.) I am reminded of two particular verses.

  • Acts 1:6: So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” The disciples still were thinking along similar lines as the Pharisees in this conversation. The timing is now forty days of the resurrection of Jesus, and the disciples were not seeing any dramatic change in the way that the world was working after the momentous events of a few weeks ago. Now they wanted to know: "When is it going to start? Are you about to restore the kingdom now?" Jesus did not say "no." He reminded them not to second-guess God's timing, instructed them to be his witnesses, and ascended to heaven. They were looking for the kingdom and it came. However, it did not come as they expected; instead in came in the form of Jesus rising into heaven and to assume his rightful place on the throne once again.
  • Romans 14:17: The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. In context, in this chapter the apostle Paul makes the point that a mature Christian should not do certain things that might cause a less mature Christian to stumble. Then he clarifies that issues of what one is or is not allowed to eat or drink is not the point of the kingdom of God. Rather the kingdom of God centers on some deeply personal concepts: righteousness, peace, and joy--not just earthly happiness, but joy in the Holy Spirit.

Our first finding, then, is that the kingdom of God is present when he rules in our hearts. Is that all there is to it? Not at all, but that's where it has to begin.

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Saturday, June 21st 2014


Ten Lepers

  • IN THE BACKDROP: Argentina 1, Iran 0

Actually, this is another entry that I wrote earlier, namely last night. When I thought it was done, it came out looking terrible, and I had to pull it. Unfortunately, by that time Facebook had posted the link to it. I will admit that I've been feeling a little bit on the crummy side over the last few days, and so I didn't have the energy to do any more serious revision and reformatting.

Central AmericaThe game as I'm beginning to write this entry today is Argentina vs. Iran. It's always good to see Argentina in their traditional blue and white pajama jerseys. As Heraclitus said, "Never mind about rivers. Some things do remain the same" (The Invented Fragments, #37).
On the serious side, the other day a friend asked me if I knew of any sources about the connection between sports and nationalism. I couldn't think of any written material, but I voiced an opinion. I don't know whether sports generates nationalism, but it certainly can feed on it. In some cases it can be a positive thing (and I won't mention my example now), but certainly negative instances abound. Sadly, as I was just looking up the Argentine soccer team online, I found one such instance being exposed. What's really bothersome is that, when people hear revisionist history long enough and often enough, they start to believe it as though it were obvious truth.

The game I had on last night as I was writing the early version of this document was Ecuador vs. Honduras. It suddenly occurred to me how illiterate I was concerning Central American geography. So, I drew myself a map, starting with an outline from internet sources. When I looked it over, I realized that of the seven countries I would only have been able to identify one of them with some assurance. Obviously, I knew that all those countries were there but that's a long shot from actually locating them on a map.

Why don't you try your hand at it? You'll find the solution at the bottom of this entry. (Please scroll past the inadvertent large blank space.)

Luke Bible Study Read the Text!

Bible Reading:
Luke 17:11-19

v. 19: And He told him, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Not too long ago someone asked me a really good question about this passage, and I think it may be interesting (an

Not too long ago someone asked me a really good question about this passage, and I think it may be interesting (and, perhaps even helpful) to share the question and my attempt at an answer with you. Here's the inquiry:

Luke 17:11-19 is the story of the 10 lepers that were healed and only one returned to give thanks. In verse 19, Jesus says to this one, "Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well." If Jesus has just healed the ten, how then is this one made well?

I wonder if I had thought about this topic without receiving that question! It's is an excellent one. I needed to do a little searching around, and herewith I give you the relevant part of my response.
There are three different words used to explain what happened to the lepers, each of them could be translated as "healed" in a generic sense, but each of them also carries significantly different connotations.

1. Cleansed [ekatharistesan]. This is the word used of all ten lepers. In v. 14, they were all "cleansed." In v. 17 "Didn't I cleanse ten people?" This word doesn't really have to do with physical healing so much as it does with purging a person of ritual defilement. It falls into the same category as eating pork, going into the temple right after having touched a corpse, the state of a woman for 6 weeks after giving birth, etc. These are all things that render a person ritually unclean, and, of course, having leprosy is in the same category. So, the "cleansing" in this case includes the physical healing, but it is first and foremost about removing the ceremonial stain.

2. Healed [iathe]. This is the word used in v. 15 of the Samaritan leper who realized that he was healed and returned to Jesus to give thanks. It refers straightforward to physical healing. The word is used in many different contexts whenever someone is healed from a disease. So, the ten lepers were cleansed by being  healed.

3. Saved [sesoken]. That's the word that Jesus used in v. 19. "Your faith has saved you. Don't think exclusively of what we mean in common evangelical talk by someone being saved, i.e. accepting Jesus and going to heaven. That is definitely included in the meaning word, and it's the word used, for example, in Eph. 2:8; "By grace are you saved." But this is not its only shade of meaning. It can also mean being saved from a physical danger. E.g., when the soldiers were mocking Jesus on he cross, they made fun of him for not being able to "save" himself. So, the various meanings of this word extend pretty much just as far as the English word "to save" does.
But there's one particular legitimate way of translating it that I think would best fit the use in Luke 17: "to be made whole."

I can't say that the man had become a "Christian" at that point because nobody could be a Christian in the biblical sense prior to Christ's death and resurrection. But he had been restored, not only in the physical sense or in the sense of removing a ritual impediment, but also into a positive relationship with God through Christ.

That's as much as I could come up with. Hope it's helpful.


Here are the seven Central American countries as numbered on the map on top:

1. Belize; 2. Guatemala; 3. Honduras; 4. El Salvador; 5. Nicaragua; 6. Costa Rica; 7. Panama.

Panama is the only one that I would have recognized with assurance because of its arc and the curious phenomenon it brings about. The point of the Panama Canal is for ships to cross from the Atlantic Ocean (east) to the Pacific (west), right? However, because of the way in which the canal is situated on the isthmus, a ship going through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific must actually follow a south-eastern course. Similarly, if it were to go from the Pacific to the Atlantic, it would have to go in a north-westerly direction.

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Thursday, June 19th 2014


Did Roger Olson have my argument in mind?

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Okay, though struggling a bit.
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Thunderstorms

A couple of days ago someone sent me an e-mail directing me to an internet post by Dr. Roger Olson that apparently alluded to my approach to the problem of evil. Obviously, I immediately clicked on his link and read the entry in his blog entitled, "Is This the Best of All Possible Worlds? What I Would Think If I Were a Calvinist." In the course of this little essay he illustrates his point by bringing up some ideas that bear a family resemblance to my argument in No Doubt About It, close enough to prompt that e-mail from a friend. I do remember that quite a while ago he and I corresponded about the chapter on epistemology in the book (at the time it was called Reasonable Faith), so I know that he did use it in his class on apologetics, and so I hope I may be forgiven if I think that he was referring to my writing.
My point here is to try to show that my ideas are not quite as irrational--maybe even silly?--as they appear in Dr. Olson's summary; I don't intend to make a comprehensive case for Cavinism or against Arminianism. For more on my point of view, please read, No Doubt, ch 7, 123-145, as well as my web postings, Some Thoughts on the Problem of Evil and Calvinism: Celebration of God's Grace. Since Dr. Olson did not mention me by name, what he wrote should definitely not be considered to be a personal ad hominem attack on me, and I hope that my response will be construed in the same way. 
In fact, Dr. Olson wrote: "I’m not going to name the author or the book here because that’s not pertinent and I don’t want to send people to him pestering him about this." That's great, and I appreciate the consideration. However, there is a liability to this courtesy as well, insofar as people have already made an association of his argument with me, and the reader should be able to check whether my point of view is represented accurately. 
Dr. Olson is clear about the point of his argument. He rightly ascribes to Calvinists the premise that God is perfectly good, omnipotent, and all-determining. We could quibble over words and concepts here, but, in order to qualify as a Calvinist, one ought to believe in what in philosophical circles has been called "meticulous providence, and that's all that's necessary for his purposes. Then he raises the question whether such a God "would plan, ordain and govern anything less or other than the best possible world" and answers immediately: "I cannot imagine that he would." Neither can I. 
Dr. Olson laments the fact that in his experience  few, if any, Calvinists are willing to own up to this obvious inference. He asserts that the explanation for this reticence must lie either in their lack of logical thinking or their unwillingness to acknowledge that their view implies that horrendous evils, even the Holocaust, must be a part of the best of all possible worlds, surely a hard pill so swallow.
Then Dr. Olson uses what I'm assuming is my argument in No Doubt About It as an example of the way in which thinkers of the Calvinist persuasion seek to sidestep the conclusion that this must be the best of all possible worlds. Not having given any references, he encourages his readers to trust him on what his mystery author said. "You'll just have to take my word for what I am going to say he wrote." I would assume that Dr. Olson's regular readers do trust him, but then he takes on a lot of responsibility to represent differing positions accurately, and I'm not sure he succeeded in this case.
With reference to the question of whether this unnamed author believed that this present world was the best of all possible worlds, he says,
"His answer was (paraphrasing): No, but it's the best world on the way to the best of all possible worlds."
His assessment of this proposition follows afoot: "Even my undergraduate students raised questions about that—that I could not answer because I ageed with them: that that’s illogical."
This is where not mentioning your source and paraphrasing becomes problematic. My statement is actually a little simpler: "The present world is the best way of achieving the best of all possible worlds." By "the best of all possible worlds" I mean one that manifests maximal goodness, and the present state of affairs certainly does not live up to that standard. Adding a qualifier along the line of this being the "best world in the interim" is not particularly helpful because it does not display maximal goodness and is only a part of the process leading up to the truly best world. It does contain a lot of evil.
There is no logical problem here unless you add words that shouldn't be there to the effect that there can be only a single best of all possible worlds, and yet you have one best of all possible worlds now and a different best of all possible worlds later. In fact, purely logically, it's not even necessary to specify that there can only be one best of all possible worlds. Superlatives need not be exclusive; they can be shared. John and Bob can be the two fastest runners on the team; apples and strawberries may be the sweetest fruits in my garden, etc. But I'm not even making such a case. There's only one best of all possible worlds, and this one isn't it, even though we're moving along towards that goal.

As a matter of fact, people more familiar with my argument know that I'm considering the present world to be the "worst of all possible worlds," not in the logical sense of "the worst world conceivable," but in the sense that God is allowing evil to be real in his creation because he is using it to take us to the best of all possible worlds. If so, we can expect him to permit as much evil as is necessary for him to bring about his plan, no more, but also no less. That's why my view does not transform evil into pseudo-goodness. It is evil, but God has permitted it (which, admittedly, could not have happened apart from his will).
The above statement brings up an important question that Dr. Olson did not mention in his reference to my argument, perhaps because he didn't think it was important. However, it is crucial. It also illustrates the principle that it is not always best practice in theology simply to take one idea out of context and unravel it to its supposed conclusion. Many biblically based statements are qualified by other biblically based statements. It is easy to say that if God is all that the Calvinist says he is, then he should be expected to create the best of all possible worlds instantaneously. But that's not the entire picture. We need to add the qualifier:--unless there are reasons why that is not possible.
The angel said to Mary, "For God all things are possible." (Luke 1:37) But he was talking about miracles in the physical world, not logical absurdities. God cannot cease being God; he cannot eliminate the attributes of his essence, contradict his words, or create certain good qualities in his creatures that logically presupposes a prior condition, even if it is evil. Thus I can understand present evil as being used by God as a necessary condition for future good. That does not mean that I can state for many, probably most, incidents of evil what God's purpose may be for them.
The standard illustrations cannot possibly measure up to the extent of evil in the world. However, they do demonstrate the fundamental logic. Even God cannot create people that have the virtues of, say, bravery, compassion, or forgiveness without having them experience danger, hurt, and wrong-doing over a certain amount of time. Similarly then, there is good reason to believe that God is taking us through this "worst of all possible" scenarios because it is the necessary path to a state of glorification, primarily his, but then also, by his grace, ours. This goal apparently could not be attained without the presence of evil.

Now, please keep in mind that my remarks under consideration come up in the context of apologetics. The basic question I've been addressing is not "Why does God allow suffering?" but "Is it possible to believe in God in the face of so much evil in the world?" And there I think that the answer still is yes. It is precisely because God is in control of the entire universe that it makes sense to believe that there will be an end to the troubling presence of evil. Furthermore, it is this "big" view of God that allows me to say that, even though I cannot make sense out of what certain events could conceivably contribute to God's plan, he is infinitely wiser and better than I am, and, thus, trustworthy. I don't think that unbounded trust in God is illogical, and that's were my view on the problem of evil ultimately rests. On the other hand, I also don't think that the idea that there are events in the world that are in principle outside of God's power to control them, is either scriptural or logical, but I don't believe that either classical Arminianism or Dr. Olson would hold to such a view.
As long as Dr. Olson used my argument in a negative way to demonstrate an alleged illogicality, I wish that he had made positive reference to the fact that I am neither ignoring the Holocaust nor providing an easy answer for its occurrence. Such matters do challenge my faith, though they do not defeat it. Again, please remember that the context is apologetics. Does the historical fact of the Holocaust make it more difficult to believe in a good God? Yes, of course. Does it make it impossible? No. Not if God truly is infinite and in control.
Let me quote from page 142 in No Doubt where I respond to my first "vignette" of the chapter, which dealt with the hurdle that the Holocaust poses to belief in God.
"I certaily cannot deny the emotional force of [Randy's] complaint. It can be very hard to maintain faith in God in the light of horrendous evil, but the objection [i.e. the argument for God's non-existence] still does not follow. Even an evil as incomprehensible as the Holocaust need not count against God's existence. I would not even want to try to find some specific good to have come out of it, but I do not see the whole picture the way God does. I am sure that even the most outrageous evil we encounter must somehow contribute to God's overall plan for the world. After all, it is presently the worst of all possible worlds."

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